Not Picture Books!

I am all for E book novels and most nonfiction, if that’s what enough people find more convenient to read for whatever reason. The way a piece of writing is read doesn’t change the essential nature of the writing itself – it’s still words, language, an author’s unique viewpoint; still a book; it’s still reading. It’s the quality of what is read that matters, not the way it’s done, as I am sure every primary school teacher of reading would agree on behalf of the children they are trying to encourage to love reading.

Accepting CBCA book of the Year Award for Kylie Dunstan's COLLECTING COLOUR IN 2009 at Seaworld.

As a picture book specialist, though, I am worried about the size of the screen for showing illustrations to best advantage (and the same applies to art and coffee table books of course). It’s true that most artwork looks more brilliant and luminous on a computer screen, and presumably therefore also on a backlit E reader screen, but I can’t see illustrations designed for a print book – that is to be viewed at at least A4 page size, and very often at A3 size in double spreads – working at the smaller size of E readers. Double spreads are so important to the flow and unity of a picture book, for resting the eye and mind and for signalling the climax or the resolution, for example. To do without them as I think one would have to do in a picture book designed for E readers would be a big loss to my mind, and would have to change the nature of how a picture book works.

The other problem with picture books as E books is that they are so commonly a gift item for young children, traditionally from grandparents and aunts and uncles. A download can’t be wrapped up with ribbon and a card, and at what age do you trust a child with an expensive E reader anyway?

People often say that another problem with children’s E books, especially picture books, which are usually for younger children, is that they can’t be read sitting on the parent’s knee (the ‘snuggle up for a bedtime story idea’), but in fact it is of course perfectly possible for parent and child to read an E reader together, on the parent’s knees or when the child is in bed.

Looking at the work of new illustrators and seeing foreign books that might be translated, at Bologna Book Fair.

There is a lot of nostalgia expressed for the physical feel (and smell) of print books, and in the case of picture books, of the pleasure of turning the page to be rewarded with a new discovery at each turn. You do turn the page on an E reader and I think the experience of anticipation and discovery is the same. But because of the nostalgia, I think print books will still be produced for quite a long time to come, albeit with simultaneously published E book editions. Which gives people a choice of how they want to read the same content, and I can’t see anything wrong with that. To me it seems that it’s just another edition of the book, as in the difference between the paperback and the hardback – and there are some people who will only read hardbacks still…

I see enhanced E books differently. Again concentrating on children’s books, I am not sure where the line is between these being books or games, and I feel the same kind of mild disapproval of the game element as I did of the ‘Choose your own adventure’ series of books in the late 70s. I didn’t think of them as ‘real books’, in a pretty snobby way I guess, and I have the same kind of feeling about enhanced E books for kids, while nonetheless finding those I have seen so far pretty attractive and fun! So, I am conflicted on this one. And more and more convinced that there will be no point in producing ‘straight’ unenhanced E book versions of print books for children as they won’t be competitive with enhanced E books Which, as I said, for me, may not be ‘real books’ but games with a literary flavour! The distinguishing point is the role the reader’s imagination plays in responding to the words and, in the case of illustrated books, the images, and I think anything that preempts that (as enhanced E books must to some degree) is certainly changing the experience of reading, and, I suspect, diminishing it.

I have known Helen Chamberlin since Gary Crew introduced us, when she was publishing the great series of dark little books called appropriately enough After Dark. I enjoyed working with her enough to keep coming back. In fact right now, she is sorting out a new release of Dreamwalker which she published some years ago, and we are working with an illustrator to create a graphic novel called Evermore…I am not alone.

Most of the people who have worked with Helen as an editor have done the same. She is a nurturer which is probably why in 2000 she was awarded the Pheme Tanner award for services to children’s literature, and in 2009 the George Robertson Award for service to the publishing industry. Oh, and she also received the Pixie O’Harris Award for ‘distinguished and dedicated service to the development and reputation of Australian children’s books’.

As to her background, Helen was a secondary teacher of English and languages before she entered the publishing industry in 1971 as a trainee editor at Heinemann Educational Australia. She has worked in the industry ever since, at first in educational publishing at Thomas Nelson, Macmillan Education, Longman Cheshire and Heinemann, and freelance, working mainly on primary level reading series and secondary English, languages and humanities texts, but also on some adult fiction for Reed.

In 1990 she joined the independent, family-owned, Australian publishing company, Lothian Books, where she edited a variety of adult non-fiction titles including gardening, crafts, biographies and self-help books. In 1993 she became the children’s book publisher at Lothian and built the children’s list there to 60-70 titles a year until Lothian Books was sold to Hachette in 2006. Helen then became the children’s book publisher for Hachette Australia and continued to produce a prize-winning picture book list there until her retirement in December 2008.

But someone like Helen does not retire, because like many writers and illustrators, her work is not just a job to her – it is a lifelong passion.

She now works as a publishing consultant and freelance editor on children’s books, young adult and adult fiction, and has recently begun her own picture book list, Helen Chamberlin Books, as an imprint of Windy Hollow Books, a small independent Australian company based in Melbourne. You can contact Helen via the Windy Hollow Books website, or through facebook.

I was really curious what she would have to say on the subject of book forms and about eBooks in particular.

13 Responses

    1. Marta says:

      You make some excellent points, Helen! Especially with enhanced e-books. Once you start adding anything other than words or pictures, you’re creating something other than a book. A game, perhaps? Something impersonating an interactive movie? I’m not sure, but the point about reading is that there is nothing but you and the words and whatever pictures the illustrator has chosen to aid your mind. You envision the story unfolding; you envision the background events that might be happening and aren’t specifically spelt out. You don’t have extra gimmicky links to tell you something which the author didn’t intend.

      Your comment about the format of a picture book, as well, is an apt one. You’ll certainly lose a lot not being able to view those pictures entirely in their intended size. And I’m thinking also of books such as those by Graeme Base, where the pictures not only tell a story but offer something more besides (hmm, it occurs to me that Graeme’s books actually are a little gimmicky in their own way… Which might detract from my earlier argument about enhanced e-books. Oops, moving on :)).

      And you’re so right about giving books to children as gifts. Emailing them a link to an ebook isn’t quite going to have the same appeal!

      Having said all this, there is a place for computer games and movies and all things interactive, included enhance e-books – I used to enjoy a good 3D computer game when I was a teenager, myself. But these pursuits are additional to reading. They shouldn’t take over the enjoyment of immersing yourself in a written universe.

      • vauny says:

        while I agree that we don’t want every ebook to be enhanced I think calling them gimicky devalues how much work goes into them.

        Enhanced ebooks are a great way to encourage children to read books. Is a very hungry catepillar gimicky because it deviates from the standard plan pages book? No it’s a fun book that makes kid want to read because of the holes in the pages. I mean if I wanted to be ridiculous about it I could even argue that picture books are enhanced books… why not just give kids a piece of paper with sentences on there?

        The fact of the matter is some kids just don’t like books. They like stories but books aren’t enough to encourage them to read. Case in point: My partner’s little brother was unable to read until Pokemon came out (Pokemon is a very text heavy game). he was around 5 at the time and significantly younger than his brothers. He wasn’t keen on books and not good at reading, but he really wanted to play pokemon. The family refused to read it for him, so he learned to read it himself so he could play and finish the game, he had no problems reading after that. This level of immersion is what we can give kids through enhanced ebooks. and i think that we all agree, the MOST important thing about children’s books is that they encourage and teach kids to read.

        Children’sprinted storybooks are wonderful and I think they will always be available in print for the reasons talked about in this article. But lets not write off other forms of reading as gimicky just because they approach immersive reading differently

      • Marta says:

        That’s a fair point, Vauny. You’re right; anything that encourages children to read is a valuable thing, and your argument about picture books being enhanced versions of novels is also very valid. And of course there have always been children that didn’t like to read. I guess I just lament the fact that, or so it seems, anyway, there seem to be so many more people these days who don’t understand the thrill of a book. I love the internet. If I tell the truth, I’m addicted to being able to be online every instant of the day. But I’m similarly addicted to reading. I just wish everyone else could have those two addictions coexist in their lives as well! (This is getting off topic, so wrapping up now :).)

    2. Deb says:

      I had the pleasure of reading to my nephew last night at bed time, he’s is visiting for a few days. I have missed this peaceful evening event since my children have grown. It was so nice to see the excitement on his little face as the pages turned and to see his chubby little finger point out things in the illustrations that related to the story.

      Mr just turned three, received an iPad for his birthday and loves to sit with his mum and play educational, interactive games on it. But at bedtime, it’s a real book that he looks for. One that he can hold in his hands and turn the pages himself.

      Hopefully by the time he is big enough to have a e-reader, without breaking it, the joy of reading will have been instilled and he will continue to find excitement in words.

      I’m all for anything that encourages children to read, even those old choose your own stories. No matter the format, even if it’s the back of a cereal box.

      Kids these days learn to use computers and other devises before they even get to school, so why not make it fun and interesting for them. Learning to read on an e-reader with interactive bits, is still learning, but I think I’ll still use a paper book for those bedtime snuggles.

    3. Sionainn says:

      I remember my favourite picture story book as a child was ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ by Della Rowland, this was not just ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, however, for upon flipping it over it was ‘The Wolf’s Tale’ which gave the story from the perspective of the wolf. I’d consider this a ‘gimmick’ and picture books were always renowned for these kind of things. The holes in the pages throughout ‘The Hungry Hungry Caterpilla’, those pop up picture books, sleuthe stories where you had to rip open part of the book to find out if you worked out the mystery; even those books that required you to push buttons at certain times to hear noises/voices–the fact is that picture books have already been enhancing themselves for years. They certainly did not result with the eradication of plain picture books and I doubt that ehanced e-books will either.

      It is as children that we fall in love with getting lost in a story–something I think too many people forget–and I know there were certainly times as a child where I would just sit and read a book without pushing the fancy buttons. At the end of the day it was still only the story that mattered.

    4. It’s getting a little tiring to keep hearing authors, publishers, librarians and teachers lament how eBooks are diminishing reading. I just don’t believe it.
      You can’t use the Internet without reading. Yes, it’s interactive and there are buttons, but if you’ve ever tried to teach an English-as-second language reader to use the English-web you know just how much it relies on your ability to read.
      I understand the long form reading concern. There are distractions – interactivity – but these already existed in printed children’s books. Not just those books that have holes cut into them or pop up to make magical paper castles… But simply the illustrations.
      If done well – and I think that’s really the heart of the matter – interactive eBooks can encourage creative thinking to extend, personalise or remember a story. Printed books are just one form of packaging. Some people feel sentimental about them. I imagine in 20 years time I will feel sentimental about the iPad. But in the end isn’t this about the story and it’s communication? Shouldn’t story writers be looking at solving the problem of communicating their story whichever medium it is delivered in, at or on?
      On another random note, don’t you think it’s strange how we talk about ‘writing’ when so few of us actually ‘write’ now? I make a lot of words every day, but the only thing I ever write down is my name. Most of us don’t write, we type… But that doesn’t sound very interesting. I prefer to think of it as communicating.

    5. Maureen says:

      Though I use an ereader, and I am in no way opposed to them, I feel that in the case of children, especially young children, having the physical hardcopy book is probably preferable.

      Actually, reading this post has made me realise something that has been bugging me about ebooks that I couldn’t put my finger on till now. To my mind, there’s something homogenising about ereader books as they are at the moment; title pages aren’t in colour so you don’t get the full effect of the cover art, you can’t flick the book over and read the blurb, the text fits the screen size in the same way every time. In a hard copy book, books come in different widths and lengths, shapes and sizes. They have different and distinguishable cover arts, and you can flick to any section you like of a hardcopy book without first purchasing said book. I don’t speak for all ereaders or all ebooks obviously, but this is definitely something I have noticed. I’ve always seen books as having personalities. Sometimes I feel that the author’s/illustrators/marketing section’s personal touch is lost in an ebook.

      Helen’s point about giving physical gifts is so apt. My Mum has always said that we value most that which is tangible. For me, a hard copy book that I can touch and smell as well as read is more tangible than an ebook. Part of the fun of being a kid is ripping apart wrapping paper to reveal the present within.

      Aside from the nostalgia that I have for all things physical book, I think it’s important with picture books to have artwork presented in the way that the illustrator intended- otherwise the meaning could potentially get lost. Double spreads in picture books are so important.

      I have to disagree with Helen on one point. Though it is to read to a child in bed from an ereader, it would be pretty difficult to read one together where the child can clearly see the words and pictures to gain meaning. As a child learning to read, I would trace under the sentence and sound words out with my mum helping me if I got stuck. I think this would be much harder to do with an ereader, unless it had a very big screen. With picture books, I’d study the illustrations in depth and discuss them and though you could still do this with an ereader, again, I think that’s easier to do with a hard copy book.

      I don’t really know enough about enhanced ereaders to comment. I think there is probably a lot of potential for creative art with them, but it also starts to sound a bit dystopian to me. Brave New World anyone?

    6. I must say I am really loving the comments and discussion that unfolds under each new guest post. I was always inclined to read the comments on internet articles because I would often find my own doubts or thoughts expressed and reflected and sometimes argued against or supported by others- it occurs to me that this is something that did not happen when I read articles in traditional magazines- and so there is a shift in how I read which has adapted to something new, because it has proven useful- I suspect ten years down the track, a lot of the dross and stuff that did not work, will have fallen by the way, and the stuff that enhances story will become so entrenched we will wonder how we ever did without it. Today’s new thing is tomorrow’s tradition. But how I love being part of a time of change and innovation in which there is a ferocious flow of idea and opinion!

    7. “This paper is going to be the death of the stone and clay book”. “The letters are going to be small.”

      “I’ve heard there is talk of a device coming in the future with multi gesture function that even let’s you zoom and you can read it,listen to it watch it and interact with it in the in the dark”.

      “You know they now have flexible, roll up A3 paper ink technology that can play back colour movies”. “It seems book is just a label”.

    8. Bernadette Walker says:

      I don’t think that any librarian is under any illusion that the e-book is here to stay. I think that most would see their major role as introducing children to the joy of the story – the picture book, the novel – whatever. Once the connection is there (and you quickly recognize it – especially with Primary school age children), then the format becomes irrelevant. However, when I have asked the children at my school about how they feel about the new technology, they are very measured – they would be devastated, they said, if the picture book collection disappeared, and their means of borrowing a book came down to the mere “download’ from a computer. I think that if we introduce children to the world of the book via the paper form then they will make up their own minds about how they use the formats later. Trust them.

      • Min Dean says:

        I think you’ve hit on a very important point with this comment; “trust them”!
        I’m a godmother of 4, and was a baby sitter for the majority of my uni life for kids in my neighbourhood – if you don’t patronise them, and give them the space to make their own decisions, they’ll come to the conclusion that is right for them, not the one that’s right for you.
        They’re little people, not idiots 🙂 You can suggest ideas, but you can’t force them. Not when they’re not your own kids, at least (so, in the context of godmother / aunt/uncle / babysitter / librarian / teacher etc. It may be a whole different story when I have kids of my own…who knows…).

      • Heather Giles says:

        When I was walking my 7 year old grandson to school the other morning I was telling him about this debate and asked him whether he would prefer to read a story or be read a story from a traditional paper book or on a computer/tablet. Without skipping a beat Taj said ” definitely a paper book, I am not into hi-tech stuff except for my Nintendo ds” he then asked me to post his comment. I do wonder if I ask him in five years time what his answer will be then.

    9. Helen Chamberlin says:

      It is all about story – in whatever form – and how well it is told – in whatever form – and always will be!